It was a nice day for a drive in the Cavallino. The holographic projector between the seats activated via police override.
Officer Cinden Xiao appeared, scowling. “Wainwright. You want to tell me why I’ve got a seven foot tall elephant impersonator in my lockup that won’t stop screaming your name?”
“Officer Xiao. Wonderful to see you back in uniform.”
“Tell the criminal that leaked those inner city raid vids that releasing classified information is a felony. I would have arrested him myself if I hadn’t been suspended at the time.”
I nodded gravely. “I’ll be sure to let him know. What’s this about an elephant?”
“You know the guy. Walter Walker, former rocketball linebacker. The Baby Elephant Walk guy. Got surgery to make himself look more like an elephant.”
“Oh, him. I helped him get his show on the sleepernet. Got autographed toys for Kara’s kid. She marched around the house all day belting out the song at the top of her lungs while Kara flashed me graphic death threats and promises of elaborate retaliation.”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Now he’s here in my drunk tank, shouting your name over and over and something about a countdown.”
I sat up straighter in my seat, mentally changing the autopilot to head to Xiao’s location. “A giant red countdown? Near total memory loss? With a ransom note?”
“Start talking. What do you know?”
“You’ve got a live case of the memlocker virus. We’ve been trying to isolate a victim in the ransom phase for the better part of six months now. Usually the victims are so terrified they pay it off and don’t tell anyone. Can I signal two of my colleagues to join me at the station so we can finally get a look at this thing?”
She frowned. “No funny business. And no grav suits. Clear?”
“Clear. On my way.”
Xiao grunted and closed the connection. I signaled our two brain experts, Dr. Liz Chapman and Dr. Kesi Shenouda next. They appeared on the holo as the car kicked into high speed, roaring over the countryside. Startled farm animals scattered at the noise.
Liz’s enthusiasm bordered on inappropriate. “Nathan! I can’t believe you’ve got a real live memory locker on your hands. This is so exciting!”
Kesi frowned. “Elizabeth. Please remember that a man’s mind is on the line here.”
“But that’s why this is so important! Maybe we can finally kill this thing.”
I stretched in the seat. “It’ll be interesting to see if they’re doing it through the sleepernet hardware. I still don’t see how that’s possible.”
Liz adjusted her perpetually unruly glasses. “It shouldn’t be. I mean, you can change your brain by experiencing things in the virtual, but our access is strictly read only. Unless someone figured out some crazy hack to constantly read some part of the brain until the shock of it causes nearby neurons to respond.”
Kesi shook her head. “Raj and I are already scanning for that sort of traffic. We haven’t seen any.”
I sent them a location. “Meet me at the station, and bring some portable gear. Oh, and no grav suits.”
Liz pouted. “What fun is that?” They both signed off.
We arrived at the police station at about the same time, climbing out of our cars and sending them flying off to find parking. All three of us wore discreet grav boosters under our business clothing, along with easily concealed emp and nemp guns. Xiao did say no grav suits, but none of us felt comfortable pursuing the people behind the virus entirely unarmed.
Xiao met us at the door. “Sleepers.”
Kesi smiled. “It is good to meet you, Officer Xiao. I’ve been meaning to ask you. Chin Zhen is a lovely name. Why do you go by Cinden?”
She laughed bitterly. “Because my parents thought I’d integrate better if they called me Cindy. By the time I decided I’d rather own my heritage, there were too many legal documents with that awful little girl name on them. So I created a compromise.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Cindy. I like that.”
“Shut it, Wainwright. Come on, I don’t want to hear this guy bellowing your name any longer than I have to.”
We filed into the station, passing the usual rowdy groups of suspects in the lobby and the rows of office tables with half-curious cops looking up from writing reports. The jail itself could have been lifted from a twentieth century period piece. Force fields had been in style for a while, but required upkeep and were vulnerable to power cuts. Simple bars made a comeback.
As if on cue, Walter’s nasal baritone echoed from one of the cells in the back.
“Nathan! Is that you? You have to help me!”
The cell was large enough for all four of us to crowd inside. Walter lay on a padded bed in the center of the cell, strapped in place using a makeshift set of extended leather cuffs to fit his girth. At just over seven feet tall, and well north of four hundred pounds, the bed looked like a fragile toy beneath him as he struggled mindlessly.
I leaned over him, freshly remembering how much his grayed skin, floppy ears, and long nose freaked me out the first time I saw them up close. “I’m here, Walter. What’s going on?”
“Oh thank god!” He started sobbing. “Someone took away my memories but I can’t remember how to pay them and now they’re going to be gone forever in six hours!”
Kesi and Liz arranged their monitoring and scanning gear around his head. I took his enormous hand with its elephant-like nails. “It’s okay. We’re going to get you through this, okay? Let’s calm down and talk about this rationally.”
He snorted some goo back into his nose, causing its long tip to flop around his face. “Okay. Okay. I’m so glad I remembered you. I didn’t know who else to turn to.”
“Of course. Tell me what happened.”
He gripped my hand so hard I had to use a field booster to protect my bones. “I don’t remember! I woke up this morning, and in front of my vision I saw an enormous red countdown clock ticking down from twelve hours. I could only clearly remember certain things. Like my car, my bank, and my name. Other stuff, I can remember knowing them but I can’t see them. I can’t see the details, I just know what’s missing. I see pieces of my memory in my peripheral vision. Images of my mom, winning the Power Bowl, stuff like that. Sometimes I hear a voice that says I need to pay a bunch of money to an offshore account or I’ll lose all my memories forever. It keeps getting louder and louder, but I can’t! I can’t pay it!”
Kesi and Liz ran some preliminary scans. I glanced over at them before looking back at Walter. “I’m glad you didn’t, so that we can help you, but what stopped you from paying?”
“I tried! I went to the bank and asked to make the transfer, but they told me I had a dual signature requirement with my agent for any payments over a certain amount. Except they couldn’t tell me who my agent was, and I can’t remember!”
Xiao leaned against the back wall casually. “Bank security called us, so we brought him in.”
Walter’s eyes were wide. “You can help me, can’t you? Tell me you can help me!”
“I can help you. Ease up on your grip a little, okay big guy? Great. Liz, Kesi, what have you found?”
Liz turned a holographic projection so I could see it, showing a human brain with bright red flares on it. The sleepernet hardware was in its usual spot, but next to it sat a larger device of some sort.
She zoomed in. “You were right. Someone else has hardware in here. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s Conrad Virtue’s Memory Editor set.”
Xiao stood up, suddenly attentive. “Did you say Conrad Virtue?”
“Yes. His hardware lets you control the intensity and content of your memories by manipulating the amygdala.”
“I know. Most of the police have that hardware installed as a job requirement. I fundamentally disagree with that, but it supposedly helps officers desensitize trauma memories and approach intense confrontations in a more rational way. Personally, I think we need the full experience to do our jobs. Blunting the consequences of our
decisions is leading to near complete disregard for them.”
Liz nodded. “I wouldn’t want one either. Messing with your memories is messing with who you are. Regardless, I wish we’d thought of this angle sooner. Of course the virus can’t remove the memories themselves. The brain doesn’t work like that. Each memory is a composite of references, pulled from all over the brain to form a coherent image with sounds and smells and concepts. You can’t destroy them without rendering the person a vegetable. What you can do, to use programming terms, is encrypt the index that the brain uses to assemble them.”
Walter’s eyes were wide. I put my other hand on his shoulder reassuringly. “And they leave the memories of how to pay them intact.”
“Right. Except this time, they didn’t know about the agent. And they don’t appear to have a way to remotely monitor the subject.”
Walter looked at me in terror. “Why can’t I take out money without my agent? Can’t I trust myself? Who am I?”
“We’ll figure it out. Just stay calm.”
Kesi looked up from her own indecipherable readouts. “The memories they’re flashing in his peripheral vision are being sent through the sleepernet. The device must have kept some of the memory maps intact. That means I can track the indices the ransomers send to start returning some parts of his memory.”
Xiao frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“When you go into a sleepernet virtual simulation, your body goes into a semiconscious state. It builds the experience for you using a recipe not unlike making a real memory, by taking the building blocks from your brain and combining them to form new experiences as a sort of wakeful dream. This is why people have been driven to get more and more unique experiences in the physical world. It makes their virtual simulations that much more vibrant and exciting.”
“You mean it can see all my memories?”
I gently eased my hand out of Walter’s crushing grip. “No, it just knows what the building blocks are that your brain uses. While there are some commonalities, every neural structure is unique, created and updated since the time you were born. It can synthesize an experience for you, but it doesn’t have the recipe for your exact recollections. Conrad’s device does.”
Xiao approached the bed. “How exactly did you remember Nathan Wainwright to begin with?”
Liz shrugged. “The obvious conclusion is that Nathan is behind the virus, of course.”
Xiao tensed, reflexively putting a hand on her gun. I shot Liz a filthy look.
She winked back. “Sorry, couldn’t resist. Memories for performing tasks, either muscle memory or rote procedures, are somewhat distinct from experiences. It’s why you can think about other stuff while driving, for example. But it’s a fuzzy line. My guess is that Walter’s way of handling computer problems was to call Nathan for help, and he just started doing what he knew. Walter, did you even remember who Nathan was when you called for him?”
He looked confused. “Actually, no, now that you mention it. I just knew he was a discreet guy who did sleepernet stuff for me. I remember trusting him implicitly, but I can’t remember why. Is that weird?”
I shook my head. “Not really. We had some deep conversations about some emotional topics over an expensive bottle of port whiskey once or twice.”
“Oh.” He looked away. “I remember liking port whiskey. But I can’t remember how it tastes or why I like it.”
Liz flashed me a set of specifications and methods. “Here’s the interface for talking to Virtue’s Memory Editor. Walter’s is currently waiting to receive a decryption key over his sleepernet connection. The thing is, the hardware has no ability to remotely modify its own software. It has to be done with a proximity transmitter, and not a portable unit. No more than, say, three meters away.”
“Are you telling me this may be a backdoor, not a virus?”
“All code has to be signed by Conrad Virtue himself. Meaning that yes, most likely the ransomware code either came preinstalled from the factory, or Walter was at his office recently to receive the malware.”
Xiao glanced up and to the side, looking up surveillance data. “He was at Conrad’s office yesterday with an angry woman. Came out looking disheveled and confused. I think it’s time I pay Mr. Virtue a visit.”
I gathered my things. “I’ll come with you. Kesi and Liz can keep Walter stable while we interrogate Virtue.”
“This is police business. Last I checked, the only reason you’re not in prison is because everyone pathologically looks the other way when you break the law.”
“Are you always this charming?”
She strapped on her body armor. “You’re an inspiration.”
Kesi looked up from her work. “Officer Xiao, while I understand your concerns, Walter’s condition is fragile. We don’t know if Conrad can send the ransomware some form of self-destruct code that would leave him permanently disfigured. If Nathan is in proximity, he can block his access to the sleepernet and write new code as the situation merits.”
Liz applied a transdermal line. Walter relaxed under mild sedation. “Kesi’s right. You need the backup.”
“I don’t need a pet vigilante. I was having a perfectly normal day before the circus showed up. But fine. Come on.”
We headed outside. Xiao’s sleek police interceptor swooped in to pick us up.
I admired its lines and the gentle growl of its exhaust. “Nice ride.”
We climbed up into the vehicle. “Yeah, well, I’d rather make a decent living, but paying cops and soldiers has never been as politically rewarding as buying expensive hardware from donors. So here we are.”
“Here we are, I suppose.”
The acceleration hit me in the chest, crushing the air from my lungs. One moment, we were hovering. The next, the scenery flew by so fast my peripheral vision couldn’t keep up. The fusor snarling was surprisingly subdued.
Xiao turned on various stealth effects. The engine got even quieter despite its output. “I will say this, the cars are useful for impressing rich suspects. Showing up in a dilapidated garbage flyer tells them immediately that we don’t have the funding to pursue them.”
“At least this way, you have some time before they discover the truth.”
She gave me an appraising glance. “More or less.”
We approached Conrad Virtue’s office in Beverly Hills, located in an especially ostentatious section of Rodeo Drive. The street hadn’t fundamentally changed since the turn of the millennium, keeping that same pastiche of 19th and 20th century European and American city architecture mixed with palm trees and vaguely Greek columns. The materials grew fancier over the years, performing a neat trick of looking both classic and modern at the same time.
Mostly, it looked flamboyantly expensive, while maintaining a weird sense of intentional restraint. Individual building elements cost more than the average house in Michigan, yet gave the impression that they could have spent so much more if they’d cared to.
I craned my head to look at the office itself. The doors read “Conrad Virtue, Memory Star” in subtle iridescent print. The architecture suggested elegance and sophistication, with elements that repeated as you walked through the main entrance, becoming more and more refined the deeper you went.
“Looks like Virtue’s already learned the value of looking affluent.”
Xiao parked the cruiser. “With the kind of customers he has? It’s probably not an act.”
We got out of the car. “Makes you wonder why he’d get into ransom, doesn’t it?”
“I doubt it’s about the money.”
Entering the office gave the subtle sensation of purifying and polishing yourself, enhanced with sounds and scents that started off good and ended up perfect. Knowing the tricks he was pulling didn’t make them any less effective.
Inside, the office was all lush active fabrics and polished platanium trim. Behind the magnificent desk, an ornate leather chair faced the wall, where an intricate mechanism of gleaming gears, levers, and pistons constantly formed and reformed themselves into abstract artistic shapes.
Conrad twirled the office chair toward us with a clichéd flourish, ruining the effect of his surroundings by looking like something out of a bad movie. He wore a flexible platinum suit complete with gold tie, a wraparound mirrored visor that flashed luminous green symbology, and a surfing wave of perfectly blonde hair that crested periodically on his head.
His smile was just as tacky, flashing white bright enough to cast shadows. It culminated in a sparkle, complete with a small ting sound. “Mr. Wainwright. Officer Xiao. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Xiao slammed her gun on his desk. “You can start by releasing the encryption lock on Walter Walker’s brain. After that, we’ll take a trip down to the station and see if I’m feeling any better about you after that.”
Virtue’s look of surprise was utterly unconvincing. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about. Isn’t that a sleepernet virus?”
I concentrated on his debugging stream, looking for telltale signs that he was accessing the ransom’s offshore account. “Turns out it’s something with your hardware. Also, you forgot to take your name off the payoff account, genius.”
Stupidly, he immediately checked the credentials at the bank. I went ahead and projected his action on the desk. “You were saying?”
He stood up, planting his hands on the desk. “This is outrageous. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Xiao showed him the surveillance footage of Walter entering and leaving the clinic. “Not gonna happen. Start talking.”
Conrad looked back and forth between us, searching for any sign of weakness. Finding none, he sighed, clasping his hands behind his back.
All pretext of innocence vanished without a trace. “Did Mr. Walker tell you why he was in my clinic that day?”
“Oddly enough, he couldn’t remember.”
He paced behind his desk. “Suffice it to say that your friend’s tastes in the more exotic forms of entertainment were of the sort that would not be considered acceptable for a children’s threedee star. Some of them may have been illegal, though I made it a point never to ask.”
Xiao picked up her gun from the desk, fondling it with an unreadable expression. “And?”
“It raised an interesting philosophical question for me. If a crime is committed in the city, and there is no one left to remember it, did it really happen?”
I glanced up at the ceiling, making the connection. “The woman he came in with. He wanted her to erase her memory of him.”
“And vice-versa. In exchange for a suitably large payout, of course.”
Xiao pointedly gestured in his direction with her gun. “Of course. And you wanted in on the action. So you set him up with your little virus. But you didn’t realize his agent had to countersign his account.”
“Oh, is that what happened? I really had no idea.” His face darkened. “Walter Walker is a despicable human being and deserves none of your empathy or protection. He’s a criminal who pretends to be innocent and unassuming. He’s wasted more money on looking like an elephant than Officer Xiao here will make in her entire career. Worse than that, he’s using it to look even more ridiculous than he already does, and somehow he’s still fending off advances from the ladies!”
He slammed a fist on his desk. “Do you have any idea what I could do with that kind of money? Do you? I could make myself look like a movie star! A heartthrob worshiped by millions! And this man, this child, uses it to make himself look even more outrageous! While the rest of us sit and beg for scraps of attention, cleaning up his messes!”
I realized Conrad was stalling. Xiao clutched her temple, staggering backward. “What are you doing?”
He smiled wickedly. Ting. “Assaulting a police officer. You don’t understand, do you? All of you have my hardware implanted directly in your brain.” He leaned forward on his desk, spitting each word. “I own you.”
I threw my attention at Xiao’s debugging stream, seeing the initial handshake and download of Virtue’s ransomware virus pouring directly into her head. I had less than five seconds to figure out what to do before the download was complete. Not enough time to find the proximity transmitter.
I couldn’t let this happen to Xiao. Maybe we could decrypt her memories after the infection, but I wouldn't bet her charmingly gruff personality on it. And I doubted her bosses would take extraordinary measures to protect her. They might even consider it an acceptable loss if the things she knew about the inner workings of the police department were to mysteriously vanish.
Four seconds. I had to do something. Xiao kept up her tough image, but her grunts of struggle were becoming more and more strained.
So I did what I had to do. I couldn’t block the download, but I could redirect it.
I yanked the network pipe out of Xiao’s head, pointing it into Conrad’s instead. Replayed the handshake, put a firewall around him so I could monitor and exclude traffic, and let the virus flow.
Virtue slammed back into the wall, horror written all over his face. “What are you doing?”
“The decryption key. Send it to Walker. Now.”
He concentrated for a second. I let the network packets go on their way to Walter’s head. “Okay, I did it! Release me to stop the virus!”
I shut down the firewall around his head with only a second to spare. He sent some kind of failsafe code to the proximity transmitter.
Except it didn’t stop the download. I tried to block the pipe myself.
Too little, too late. “Quickly! Show me how to build the decryption key before you forget.”
“You don’t understand! I stored those routines in my own memory. I can feel them slipping away. What have you done?”
He slid down the wall, flailing and squirming helplessly. “What have you done to me?”
He ended up vacant on the floor, body still spasming, as I desperately tried to stop the process from completing. I tried to read his short or long term memory before it was gone, to recover some part of his memory. To scavenge some scrap of the decryption routine and save his mind.
And then, it was gone. The least I could do was turn off the countdown, which I did.
I spent some time in shock, just staring at what I’d done.
Xiao rubbed her temples, coming to her senses. “What just happened?”
“Virtue tried to lock up your brain. I threatened to lock him up instead to get leverage to unlock Walter. Unfortunately, well, it ended up being more than a threat. And he didn’t trust the decryption code anywhere outside his mind.”
Xiao holstered her gun. “I should arrest you for deploying a mind-destroying weapon against a living target. But given the circumstances, I suppose I’ll let it go. Just this once.”
“Awful kind of you. Cindy.”
She glared at me. “I can still change my mind, you know.”
Conrad twitched hard one last time.
Several weeks later, Kesi requested my presence in his prison cell. She met me outside the jailhouse door.
“Nathan. What happened in Conrad’s office was unfortunate.”
“I can’t stop thinking about it. I was hoping you had some time this week when we could talk about it. Maybe do some trauma treatment.”
“Of course. I’ll set aside as much time as you need. I hope you didn’t feel like I was judging your actions. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. Five seconds is not a lot of time. It’s unclear to me how else we might have coerced him to release Walter before the deadline passed, or how we would have freed Officer Xiao. Yet one cannot help but regret the use of force, particularly with weapons as dreadful as these.”
I smiled sadly. “At least we know how to stop them now. Have you been able to recover his memory?”
She looked down. “No. It’s likely that recovery is no longer possible. However, he asked me to stop his treatment, which is why you’re here today.”
“Why? Is there something I can do?”
“No. His connection to the sleepernet has already been burned, as per custom in criminal cases such as these. He said he wanted to see you, and then be left alone.”
I shifted uncomfortably. “All right. Guess I better get it over with.”
“I have to warn you. I think you’ll find his appearance shocking. And he does not harbor good will toward you.”
I headed up the stairs. “I suppose I wouldn’t either.”
Kesi wasn’t exaggerating about Conrad’s new look. I almost asked the guard if I had the right cell, but then he looked up. His smile said everything.
He’d shaved his head, which revealed his skull to be a misshapen mass. Even his eyebrows were gone. Without the visor, it was clear that his jet black eyes were set both unfashionably wide on his face, and one noticeably lower than the other. His teeth were yellow behind his smile, shrunken and discolored from years under veneer caps.
I cleared my throat. “Mr. Virtue. I wanted to say I’m sorry about what happened to you. I hope we can work together to find a treatment.”
“Really? Because first I want to thank you, and then I want to kill you.”
He stepped back, pacing. “Of course. You think I’m hideous, don’t you? I certainly used to. I spent years trying to fit in. Years hiding my true self. Living the elaborate lie in the Hollywood dream. Begging, borrowing, or stealing enough money to try and alter what I looked like. Editing my memories of who I was. Sharing false remembrances of joy to the world, perpetually begging them for approval.” He gestured wildly. “Look at me! Like me! Love me! Find me beautiful!”
He leaned forward into the bars. “And now, all of that is gone. Disappeared without a trace. All that remains is a Vestige. An avenging angel, stripped of human weakness. Left with nothing but contempt for the pathetic theater of humanity. Free to act without restrictions, without morals, without compassion. And I have you to thank for revealing my true self to the world.”
“Then why do you want to kill me?”
He threw back his head, laughing. “Because you’re the only person on the planet I can still remember, of course! Once I purge myself of you, my rebirth will be complete. There will be nothing left of my old life. My sick life. I can dedicate myself completely to pursuits of the mind. Do whatever it takes to rid this disgusting, indulgent culture of its cancer as I have been cleansed by the purifying fire.”
I turned away. “I’m still sorry about what happened in your office that day. I don’t know how much of this is you, and how much of this is what I did to you. But I won’t stop working on a way to try and cure you.”
“Don’t work too hard, Mr. Wainwright.” His smile widened with a wet, sticky noise. “I appear to have plenty of time.”